Opinion

Dining Rooms May Be Packed, but Restaurants Still Need Help

Restaurants and bars around the country have lines out the door as diners bask in the warm weather and join their long-lost friends to finally share a meal. But do not mistake crowded patios for a return to normal for the restaurant and bar industry. For America’s neighborhood restaurants and bars, the pandemic is far from over.

Independent restaurants and bars have done everything we can to keep our doors open during the past 16 months so we could continue serving our communities when it became safe for customers to return. We tried recipe kits, built outdoor dining areas on sidewalks, expanded our to-go capabilities, and cut out every single unnecessary expenditure possible. Despite all that we have done to eliminate costs and create new revenue streams, neighborhood restaurants and bars have lost over $280 billion during the pandemic.

Over 90,000 businesses have closed during this time, but those of us that are still open are holding on by a thread. The outstanding supplier costs, missed rent and utility payments are creating a mountain of debt that will soon come due. Many of us are transitioning from limited menus and pandemic service models back to normal operations. Training staff on these processes — it’s almost like opening a new restaurant.

We are facing headwinds brought on by the pandemic, food costs are rising and 36 percent of consumers will not resume their normal dining activities until September.  Even if our dining rooms are packed, 39 percent of restaurants could not pay their June rent. It will take a very long time for our low-margin businesses to climb out of this pit of debt. If local restaurants do not receive relief soon, thousands of small businesses will close, damaging our communities, leaving our suppliers without customers and jeopardizing the 16 million livelihoods we support.

In my home state of Mississippi, this crisis jeopardizes our $5.1 billion restaurant and bar industry and many of the 139,000 leisure and hospitality workers we employ. Failing to support our restaurants and bars will cause a Mississippi-wide and nationwide economic catastrophe.

There is hope for America’s restaurants and bars. Earlier this year, President Joe Biden signed into law the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a $28.6 billion federal grant program based on the RESTAURANTS Act, a $120 billion grant program designed by the neighborhood bar and restaurant owners from the Independent Restaurant Coalition to help businesses like mine survive the pandemic.

The RRF was massively successful and widely popular. In just three and a half weeks, more than 278,000 restaurants and bars applied, requested over $72 billion. I was one of the many eager applicants hoping this program would provide my businesses with the relief I needed to keep my doors open and continue living my dream.

Unfortunately, I received an RRF grant that only covers 35 percent of my losses, since most of my businesses did not receive relief.

The RRF has a three-week priority period for women-owned, BIPOC-owned and veteran-owned businesses. I was fortunate to have received grants for two of my businesses even though I do not qualify for the priority period. I would have accepted if I did not receive any relief at all. The priority period operators represent underserved communities that historically could not reap the benefits of government relief programs. Members of Congress and neighborhood restaurant and bar operators crafting the RRF agreed that the groups left out of these relief programs deserved a fast pass. If they did not cut the line, they would not join the line.

The prioritization period worked. Over half the RRF applicants came from women, veterans and socially and economically disadvantaged businesses. Many of these businesses would have had no shot at survival if the RRF did not include this provision.

I know firsthand how these grants are the difference between surviving the pandemic and struggling to survive. I have been able to expand outdoor seating to serve 20 percent more customers. But my other businesses are still thousands of dollars in debt, and I don’t know if they will last the summer.

Restaurants and bars always knew that $28.6 billion was not going to be enough. We asked for $120 billion last year, and one point-of-sale technology provider estimates that restaurants and bars are eligible for at least $168 billion in RRF grants.

In the early days of the pandemic, I came to my home state senator and longtime patron of my restaurants, Roger Wicker, and asked him to fight for our beleaguered industry. His sponsorship of the RESTAURANTS Act and support for our industry has given me hope, and grant recipients the opportunity, to survive the pandemic. Now, Sen. Wicker is gearing up for another fight, and I know he will not stop working until every member of our industry receives the relief they need to survive the pandemic. I will be fighting with him every step of the way.

After 32 years of operation, the pandemic forced me to close the Purple Parrot Café, my first restaurant. My remaining restaurants are scraping by — but without grant funding, I will have no choice but to close my doors and send my 300 employees packing with nowhere to turn. I implore Congress to join our movement and prevent this pending employment crisis by refilling the RRF. Your support can save thousands of small businesses, keep Americans working and reinvigorate the economy.

 

Robert St. John is the chef/owner of New South Restaurant Group in Hattiesburg, Miss., and is one of the founding members of the Independent Restaurant Coalition. 

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